Going forward, “taking a pandemic seriously” should be a matter not of mandatory sacrifice but of creative preparation. We need new laws, new policies, and new scientific processes to ensure that we never have to go through this again. We need to pandemic-proof America—and, just as urgently, to pandemic-proof the world.
So how do we do that? We can (and should) talk about better testing, or better ventilation, or clearer public-health communications. But all of these solutions are provincial compared with the single best way to pandemic-proof the planet: We need to vaccinate the world much, much faster.
Global vaccine inequality is stark. For nations leading the world in rapid vaccination, such as Israel, the pandemic appears to be nearly over. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is still raging in Brazil, and India is dealing with a terrifying explosion in cases. One model suggests that India could be experiencing as many as 7 million COVID-19 infections every day. These outbreaks are tragic for local populations. But their risks affect all of us. As the virus continues to thrive and mutate in other countries, these places can be hot zones for variants, which can spread and threaten the world.
Last year’s vaccine breakthroughs, which led to the speediest authorization of new vaccines in history, might seem like a pinnacle of human achievement. Not everybody is so impressed. “People say, ‘Oh wow, it’s so great that we got a vaccine in a year,’ but almost 3 million people have died,” Florian Krammer, a vaccine scientist at Mount Sinai, told me. “Eleven months isn’t good enough. A novel vaccine in about three months should be the goal.”
A 100-day vaccine: That might sound like some arbitrary, pie-in-the-sky figure. But in the past few weeks, I’ve spoken with Krammer and several other vaccine experts who believe we could make the 100-day vaccine a reality. Developing and distributing a vaccine in that time frame would require a good deal of money, a great deal of planning, and a heroic expansion of vaccine-manufacturing capacity. But compared with the cost of COVID-19—3 million deaths, countless more lives sundered and wrecked, several trillion dollars of global income lost—just about any plan would be the bargain of the century.
The 100-day vaccine plan has three parts: virus surveillance, vaccine research and development, and manufacturing and distribution.
The first step is to build a super-team of virus hunters. “We need to know what viruses are out there, because otherwise we can’t prepare for them, or vaccinate against them,” Krammer said. Several organizations, including the CDC and the World Health Organization, already monitor influenza strains in humans and animals around the world to guide the development of seasonal flu vaccines. Krammer said we should expand that effort to surveil about 100 of the most dangerous virus types, especially those that move from human to human via the respiratory tract, because they tend to be the hardest to stop.